Giving Money to the Homeless Might Actually Work

A pilot project in London asked homeless people what would change their lives, and bought it for them. And it really did change their lives.

A few months ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a UK-based nonprofit that does amazing work in the field of poverty and social exclusion, issued a surprising report that deserves a much wider readership.


The study evaluated the success of a radical new way of working with the long-term homeless. Instead of soup kitchens, shelters, and mobile health clinics, the charity Broadway simply selected 15 homeless people that their outreach workers had found the hardest to reach (one had been on the streets for an astonishing 45 years), asked them what it was they needed to change their lives—and then bought it for them.

One asked for sneakers and a prepaid cell phone, one needed cash to pay off a loan, one wanted a TV and a comfy chair (to make the move into hostel accommodation more attractive), and one requested a camper van. Each of them received the money to purchase exactly what they asked for, with the condition that they also had to choose a personal "broker" who would help them write a budget.

Two refused to engage with the pilot project altogether, but of the 13 who agreed to take part, 11 are now off the streets. Several have entered treatment for addiction and mental health issues, some have reconnected with their families, and all are exhibiting an enhanced ability to function independently in society (i.e. paying bills, signing up for welfare, and turning up for training courses, etc.). The participants' own comments give a clue as to why the intervention worked so well:

I've got a 32-inch telly and a DVD. I’ve come a long way from the street!

The option of going to homeless organizations [for support] didn’t enter my mind. I know I’m an entirely different creature from most homeless people.

I didn't just go for the most expensive, I did it as if it was my money. I’m getting into thinking more [about how the money is spent].

I've got to be honest here, it wasn't just the individual budget, it was the fact there was [co-ordinator] there as well... We was meeting [regularly] to discuss it, and I'd actually gone from the stage of wanting nothing to do with these people, to actually looking forward to seeing them.

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This was only a small-scale pilot project, but its results are compelling and make a lot of sense. Broadway's outreach workers, some of whom confessed that they were initially afraid that the homeless people would "milk" the system or spend the money on drugs, testified to the power of treating each person as an individual, respecting their autonomy, and helping them to build a relationship of trust and accountability with an "establishment" figure.

The upfront expense of a budget and the cost of providing personalized one-on-one "broker" support are easily outweighed by the amount the taxpayer will spend over time on police, prison, and medical bills (at least in the UK, where the study was carried out and where social services are more generous). This month, the pilot is being expanded to become a central part of Broadway's regular outreach efforts in the City of London; it will be fascinating to see whether these kinds of successes can be replicated on a larger scale.

Image: A collage of items bought by the homeless people in the study, together with images of their new accommodation, from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report "Providing Personalized Support to Rough Sleepers"; story via The Morning News.

Previously on GOOD: "Free Public Transportation for Homeless People," "Why Houses Cost Less Than Homelessness," and "Infographic: Getting to Know the Homeless"

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